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Don’t Waste Your Time and Money on Church

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Guest Post by Karuna Gal

Do you think about what you get in return for the money and time you spend on your church? Here’s the answer: “You receive intangible spiritual benefits.” That sentence was printed on the quarterly donation statements sent from my last church. Well, at least my church was somewhat honest. What I truly got was nothing — especially nothing spiritual. But perhaps there were some details which the church didn’t include. For example, maybe I helped finance the Second Coming, thereby earning some Divine brownie points? Don’t laugh. A nineteenth-century Christian millennialist group, the Harmony Society, actually opened up a bank account for Jesus to use when he returned to earth. I’ve seen the entry in their accounting book, which is on display in a museum. Jesus never showed up to use the money, though.

I gave the churches with which I was involved a reasonable amount of money. But churches push you to give more all the time. Here’s an example of guilting you might see in a church newsletter: “In the Old Testament, the Israelites gave the Lord 10% of their harvest, which is called a tithe. The church staff is tithing on their income for our church, as a spiritual discipline. God rewards the cheerful giver and will bless you for your donation.” So, reading between the lines, what this means is, “And why don’t YOU do the same, you undisciplined, unspiritual parishioner? Smile and open up your damn wallet for GOD!”

Even now, my old church’s website has not one, but two donate buttons on their homepage. Every church newsletter had the Treasurer’s report and articles about church repairs to be financed and charitable needs to be met. And then there was that dreaded “Time and Treasure” season when you had to say how much you would pledge for the following year. I dreaded it because then the pressure to give the church money went up to a fever pitch from clergy and the Vestry (church board.) Sluggards got a call from the Vestry if they hadn’t yet pledged.

One Christmas, we had a big snowstorm and couldn’t hold Christmas Eve services. Our rector grumbled to the Vestry later that we lost a lot of income due to that. However, he wasn’t upset that the congregation missed out on Christmas.

When I served on the Vestry of my last church, I created a Fundraising Committee, since it seemed from all this hoopla that the church needed more money. I worked hard with my committee members to raise money by organizing events and selling cookbooks, among other things. I never got much recognition for my efforts. But because of my fundraising prowess, the rector wanted me to start talking to parishioners about leaving money to the church in their wills. That was the sort of glad-handing I avoided doing.

At least the churches I attended were open and public about their finances. Other churches aren’t. A 501(c)(3) tax status is a great thing for religious organizations to have. This means that the church meets the IRS’ definition of what constitutes a church, and once the organization gets this status it will have an automatic tax exemption. A religious organization with a 501(c)(3) status also doesn’t have to file a non-profit tax return or a financial statement. It’s a religious shyster’s wet dream. Beware of a church that isn’t transparent about where your money goes — it could be paying the mortgage on its sleazy minister’s palatial digs (Joel Osteen’s palatial digs come readily to mind.)

Volunteering is another way churches take advantage of their gullible flocks. A believer’s fervor powered my volunteering. I had to do my part for God’s house, my church, and if I didn’t, I was an ungrateful Christian, and God would scold me on Judgement Day. So, along with serving on the Vestry and the Fundraising Committee, I was a choir member, a Chalice bearer, a helper with Sunday School, and I participated in all kinds of projects. My church also got a lot of free labor from retired parishioners, a source of envy for the rectors of other Episcopal churches, who didn’t have nearly as many devoted volunteers as we did.

All this fundraising and volunteering — mine and others’ — must have helped burnish our rector’s reputation in the diocese. He left after only five years with us, for a better gig in the big city. And when he returned for a visit after he left, the first thing he asked me about was not my health or my spiritual walk. He wanted to know . . . if I had started talking to the parishioners about leaving money in their wills to the church. I hemmed and hawed and did not answer.

The church got a lot of mileage out of me before I finally realized that I had been used. All I gained out of my church experience was regret. I wasted so much time and energy in all the churches I belonged to. (But luckily I wasn’t out of too much money. I wasn’t that starry-eyed.) It would have been much better for me to focus on getting my own house in order instead of taking care of God’s house.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    I don’t go to church, it is not for me. But I’m not sure a blanket aviso to not waste your time and money is warranted. Certainly if you loathe going to church, get nothing out of it, and you’d rather be someplace else, YES get out of there. Now my parents have always enjoyed the social outlet. My dad would hang out in the fellowship room until we looked around and everyone else had went home. In context of a social club, non-fundamentalist churches can probably be a decent hangout if you’re a believer.

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    Karuna Gal

    Hi, Troy. Sounds like your parents were more relaxed and realistic about the whole church scene than I was. I enjoyed socializing at church a lot, don’t get me wrong. Unfortunately I was also fervent and idealistic and wanted my efforts at church to support my spiritual evolution. Churches aren’t designed for that sort of thing. I’m assuming your folks didn’t go crazy and give the church too much money or burned themselves out with volunteering and receiving no thanks for what they did. That’s when it can be a bad thing. Yes, a mainline church can be a good social club for believers, but a serious seeker is looking for something more, much more.

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    My husband and I joined a nice progressive UCC church after we had our first child. The vast majority of the members were old enough to be our parents and grandparents, but there were a handful of younger families who joined after 9-11. As soon as we joined, We were expected to join committees. It felt overwhelming to me as a new parent to have that expectation laid on us too, but I didn’t know how to get put of it. Overall the people were nice, but some of the old people ran the pastor husband-wife duo out of the church and replaced them with an older white guy – even after asking our opinion about what the younger families wanted. That on top of the doubts we were having about the existence of God Madd it easy to leave.

    Churches can really suck the resources out of their members. Some people like that if they feel other needs are being met.

    By the time I was a teenager my grandparents were trying to force me into volunteering at church. I resented the hell out of it. Fortunately I went off to college and didn’t have to deal with it anymore.

    • Avatar
      Karuna Gal

      OC – Just like you,the nasty, unchristian behavior of clergy and laypeople, and loss of belief in God made me leave my church, too.

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    I agree with every word you wrote. I resent it when churches appeal for money for missions too. Went to fundy church last Sunday while staying with fundy relatives. The missionary focus was on Operation Mobilisation, a short video of all the good humanitarian work they do, rescuing migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean as they try to reach Europe, giving water to needy african regions etc etc etc….and then the punchline, give us money so we can do this to share the love of jesus and how wonderful that our relief work also gives us opportunities to give out bibles and evangelise all these (dark-skinned) heathen folk….

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      Karuna Gal

      Matilda, your comment brought back cherished memories of missionaries, Gideon Bible reps and others jokers who were guest preachers at Sunday services, looking for some dollars. I never gave those folks any money. 😄

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    I went to a Christian college for my freshman year. Most of us went to the local church on Sunday and we weren’t spared the guilt of fund raising appeals despite being poor college students. How could I contribute money I did not possess? Conflicting issue for a fundamentalist 18 year old. The constant appeals and guilt continued as I entered adulthood with the responsibility and financial pressure of raising a family. Now that I am free from the insanity of religion I have control of my finances and only regret that I did not invest the money I wasted on various churches

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Karuna–Your last sentence says so much about what draws people to, and keeps them in churches. Committing your money, time and other resources is a way to avoid putting your house in order–whether that house is your physical abode, financial status or mental state. The latter was definitely true in my case, in part because I was too poor to have finances to put in order. Seriously, though, I got involved in churches, in part, to avoid dealing with my gender identity and sexuality as well as other issues in my life. I know many other people who did the same.

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      Karuna Gal

      MJ – You are spot on. There was a woman acquaintance of mine who was overweight and had health issues but did an enormous amount of volunteer work for her church and elsewhere. It was pretty clear to me that she was avoiding her personal problems by doing “God’s work.” Other church people applauded her for it. I hope all that volunteer work didn’t ultimately kill her.

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Bruce Gerencser